Russia’s lies may be catching up with it faster than it ever imagined.
The war in Ukraine is defying President Vladimir Putin’s expectations at every turn, not only with Russia’s failure to capture Kyiv as planned but with the war crimes his soldiers are alleged to have committed in Bucha, a city close the capital, exposed for the world to see.
Throughout history, wars have been won by forces turning new technologies to their advantage. The 1415 victory of English King Henry V over the French at the Battle of Agincourt came courtesy of his archers and their newly developed longbows, raining arrows over a range the French could not match.
The war in Ukraine may see another historic first, with technology cutting through the fog of war, exposing the aggressors’ lies and accelerating efforts to bring about their defeat.
Satellite images of murdered civilians that match videos, recorded weeks later, of bodies at the roadside are providing compelling evidence of Russian war crimes, convincing Western leaders to ramp up sanctions on Russia and accelerate weapons supplies for Ukraine.
How this will affect the final outcome of the war is unclear. But what is evident at a time when Ukraine is urgently seeking any additional leverage as Russian forces regroup for a new offensive, is that Russia’s actions in Bucha are strengthening Ukraine’s hand.
While battlefield satellite imagery has been available to governments for decades and was instrumental in pinpointing war crimes during the Bosnian civil war in the 1990s – notably locating a mass grave of many of the 7,000 Bosnian Muslims slaughtered in the town of Srebrenica in 1995 – it has never been so immediately available in the public domain as now.
Putin and his battlefield commanders appear not to care or not to have grasped the fact that orders and actions now leave an indelible record beyond their control that could come back to haunt them.
They will be aware that in many past conflicts – even as recent as the Syrian civil war – leaders like Bashar al Assad escaped conviction and have even been rehabilitated, despite vast troves of incriminating documents spirited from government offices and police stations.
But this is not the only lesson to which Putin should pay attention. Following the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian civil war, the war crimes tribunal in the Hague used political and military leaders’ own words to help convict them.
When the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) put Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic on trial, it had video of him looking over Sarajevo, condemning the civilians below to artillery and mortar fire.
His military partner in war crimes there, General Ratko Mladic, also saw his words come back to help convict him, as video showed him on the outskirts of Srebrenica directing the filtering of civilians, many of whom would shortly be slaughtered by his soldiers, following his orders.
That type of link may be harder to pin on Putin, but his 20-page thesis published last summer on why Ukraine is not a country, and his TV comments on why Russia should invade, will, if previous war crime courts are a precedent, count against him as author and director of the war.
If Putin were to come to trial, his unravelling may turn out to have begun with his inability to understand his army’s weaknesses and Ukraine’s strengths. Failure to fulfil his first major objective, the capture of Kyiv, forced his troops to retreat, leaving their tide of terror exposed.
They did what they have done so many times before, in Syria, in Chechnya, in Georgia: committed awful abuses. And Putin and his officials did what they have done so many time before: lied to cover their crimes.
Russian defense officials claimed photos and videos that emerged on April 2, showing murdered civilians – shot in the head, some with their hands and legs bound – were fake, saying their troops left before the killings occurred. “The troops left the city on March 30,” the defense ministry said in a statement. “Where was the footage for four days? Their absence only confirms the fake.”
They were very clear about the date. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, one of Putin’s most seasoned spin masters, doubled down on the clumsy cover-up, insisting “Russian forces left the Bucha town area as early as the 30th of March.”
But publicly available satellite images from space-tech company Maxar, taken March 18 while Russian troops were in control, showed the civilians lying dead at the road side in exactly the same locations as Ukrainian forces discovered them when they re-entered the town in early April. And drone video shot before March 10 showed a cyclist being shot and killed by Russian troops. Ukrainian forces found his body weeks later, exactly where he fell.
In the months prior to Russia’s invasion and the days since Maxar’s images appeared, tracking Russian forces and their destruction, the public’s understanding of the battlefield has been revolutionized. Coupled with the near-ubiquitous use of smartphone cameras, geolocation technology and sophisticated drones, Putin faces the possible reckoning he escaped in previous conflicts.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wants more cameras, and wider access, to let the public see for themselves: “This is what we are interested in, maximum access for journalists, maximum cooperation with international institutions, enrolment of the International Criminal Court, complete truth and full accountability,” he said in a video address on Monday.
Ukraine’s enigmatic leader has realized it’s not just high-tech, tank-busting weapons like Javelins and NLAWs, or surface-to-air missiles like Stingers and Starstreaks, that could turn the tide in the war. It’s truth, and the tools – satellites, drones and smartphones – to deliver it.
Unparalleled in any modern war, technology could hand the underdog this surprising advantage, undermining the lies of an oversized aggressor. Zelensky was at pains for the United Nations to understand this when he spoke to them Tuesday: “It is 2022 now. We have conclusive evidence. There are satellite images. And we can conduct full and transparent investigations.”
Like Henry V in 1415, Zelensky knows an advantage when he sees it. While satellite imagery may not be as game-changing as a six-foot yew branch and a length of hemp string, if he can use it cleverly, he may force Putin to talks much sooner than the Russian President would like.